Swaggering, sleek and muscular, the Dodge Stratus recalls a bygone era of big coupes, hulking, family-size coupes, that absolutely demanded your attention. Dodge's own Charger comes to mind. Arrogant and powerful, they were the toys and status symbols of the young and successful, some 30 years ago.
Stratus brings that excitement back, in a modern, efficient, and aerodynamic package, still with a family-size back seat, and all for starting price under $18,000.
Stratus was all-new last year (2001), when it replaced the similarly themed Dodge Avenger. Compared to the Avenger, however, the Stratus Coupe features a stiffer platform and larger engines, including a 200-horsepower V6. Changes to Stratus for 2002 are minimal, consisting mostly of upgrades to sound systems and other optional equipment.
The slick shape of the Stratus Coupe demonstrates the benefits of wind-tunnel testing, as its arched structure slices through the air with a clean sweep from nose to tail. Its taut skin stretches across its long, broad form as smoothly as flowing water. Flat side panels seem to come from the NASCAR school of design, along with muscular shoulders suggesting strength and action.
The graceful profile and dramatic windshield rake reflect Dodge's flagship sedan, the Intrepid. Yet its stubby prow and body-colored, cross-hair grille reveal a relationship with the racy Dodge Viper. At the rear, shapely pillars slide down into rolled flanks, and a neat tail spoiler curves over bold corner lamps and the thick mass of a monochrome bumper.
Generous passenger space comes from the Coupe's architectural design, which extends the windshield forward, abbreviates space for the engine, and increases the length and width of the cabin.
High-back bucket seats come standard, although they are trimmed in different fabrics for the SE and R/T. For an additional $1,045, the R/T can be ordered with cushy and comfortable leather; the package also includes six-way power and a HomeLink garage door system nicely integrated into the visors. The visors themselves are wider than the sharply raked windshield and are articulated on the end to allow them to bend around the A-pillar, which is not the ideal solution.
The tachometer and other instruments are tucked into deep binnacles beneath a bowed cowl designed to shield them from sunlight. Sculptured pods on either side of the center console create separate cockpit spaces for the driver and front passenger. From the driver's seat, you can easily reach the shift lever, or the window and lock switches mounted on the door. The handbrake lever is on the spindly side.
Above the console is a central stack of audio and climate controls. The ventilation system uses basic rotary dials with plastic vents that feel a bit flimsy. Stereo controls are small, with sliders for bass and treble that can be difficult to operate on a bumpy highway. A display at the top of the dash provides compass heading and outside temperature readings, useful information when out and about.
The Stratus provides excellent outward visibility for the driver with broad, tall expanses of glass, and relatively narrow windshield pillars.
Unlike some sport coupes, Stratus has a room in the back seat for adult riders. The rear bench seats three, and the seat back is split 60/40 for access to the trunk. We crawled into the rear seat and found that our long legs fit neatly, even comfortably, behind the driver's seat. The front seat slides forward far enough to permit quick entry or reasonably graceful extraction. Few coupes provide as much rear seat leg space, although Toyota's Solara beats the Stratus by more than an inch.
Trunk space is the best in its class, exceeding most Japanese coupes by three cubic feet and the Ford Mustang by more than five cubic feet. We easily parked two medium-sized recycling bins in the trunk of our test car.
With its confident road manners, Stratus creates a feeling of hardware working in harmony. Its ride quality is smooth, yet firm enough to feel nimble in curves. The car is quick to respond to steering inputs, deftly changing lanes.
The R/T suspension is tuned stiffer still, and rides on wider tires. The SE has 16-inch wheels with P205/60HR16 tires; R/T uses 17-inch wheels with P215/50HR17 rubber. The larger tires feel more aggressive when turning, and ultimately improve the coupe's agility.
Still, the basic suspension layout is same for both models, and includes MacPherson struts up front with lower A-arms. Shock tower bracing increases chassis rigidity. In back, upper A-arms combine with lower lateral and semi-trailing links and coil springs. Anti-roll bars, which reduce body lean in corners, are standard. Straight-line stability and highway ride are particularly good, although we think the old Avenger might have felt a little more confident when charging hard through a turn. The tires offer good grip, but generate a hissing sound at highway speeds.
Stratus SE is powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with a single overhead camshaft, four valves per cylinder and sequential multi-point fuel injection. Output reaches 147 horsepower with a manual transmission, and 142 with an automatic. That's good enough to beat the base engine in the Toyota Solara, and comes close to matching the power of Honda's Accord. The four-cylinder engine feels energetic through all the gears, but it also works pretty hard. To maximize the power you must run the revs high, and it gets a bit noisy in the upper-rpm range.
On the other hand, the 3.0-liter single-cam V6 (standard in R/T, and part of a $1710 package in SE) delivers brisk acceleration. It develops 200 horsepower at 5500 rpm and 205 foot-pounds of torque at just 4500 rpm. That's as much or more power than other V6 competitors. Nail the throttle and the R/T goes, whether starting from the gate or overtaking a slower car. When cruising, the V6 produces a sporty exhaust note pleasing to enthusiasts. Overall, the character of the Stratus R/T lies somewhere between that of a pony car (Camaro, Mustang) and a more refined Japanese coupe.
The standard five-speed manual is a short-throw stick that moves effortlessly fore and aft, with smooth clutch engagement and easy up-shifts. The optional four-speed automatic contains an adaptive controller tied to a computer that quickly learns a driver's habits and manipulates shift patterns to suit their driving style. Take it easy, and the transmission shifts gently at relatively low engine speed. Stomp it and it stays in gear longer for better acceleration. Tackle a long downhill descent and it drops down a gear to add engine braking. With the AutoStick, you can slide the automatic shift lever into manual mode for shift-it-yourself entertainment without having to pump a clutch pedal.
The R/T and 3.0-liter SE both come with four-wheel disc brakes that bring them to a quick stop. Slam on the brakes and optional ABS steps in to prevent wheel lockup, helping you maintain steering control in an emergency braking maneuver. The four-cylinder SE coupe comes with rear drum brakes, and ABS is not an option. Traction control, available on R/T automatics, is useful to reduce front wheel spin when accelerating on wet pavement.
Dodge Stratus Coupe disguises a spacious passenger compartment behind a sleek facade. It offers style, practicality, and value. The sporty Stratus R/T adds V6 performance yet still holds the bottom line to a reasonable number.
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